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The Two Rivers of Lewis & Clark
Entries For May 14:
Captain Lewis (current)
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Bear's oil was a much used edible fat for many years. The Cherokees liked the oil of the black bear - of which a single animal might yield 15 gallons. Oil from Plains grizzlies was sold in New Orleans for many years. Indians sometimes flavored bear's oil with sassafras. An eighteenth-century white traveler remarks that it was "sweet and wholesome" and never cloyed the palate.
Towards evening the men in two of the rear canoes discovered a large brown bear lying in the open grounds about 300 paces from the river, and six of them went out to attack him - all good hunters. They took the advantage of a small eminence which concealed them, and got within 40 paces of him, unperceived. Two of them reserved their fires as had been previously concerted; the four others fired nearly at the same time, and put each his bullet through him. Two of the balls passed through the bulk of both lobes of his lungs. In an instant, this monster ran at them with open mouth. The two who had reserved their fires discharged their pieces at him as he came toward them. Both of them struck him - one only slightly, and the other, fortunately, broke his shoulder. This, however, only retarded his motion for a moment. The men, unable to reload their guns, took to flight. The bear pursued, and had very nearly overtaken them before they reached the river. Two of the party betook themselves to a canoe, and the others separated and concealed them selves among the willows, [and] reloaded their pieces; each discharged his piece at him as they had an opportunity. They struck him several times again, but the guns served only to direct the bear to them. In this manner he pursued two of them, separately, so close that they were obliged to throw away their guns and pouches, and throw themselves into the river, although the bank was nearly twenty feet perpendicular. So enraged was this animal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man he had compelled to take refuge in the water.
When one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him, they then took him on shore and butchered him, when they found eight balls had passed through him in different directions. The bear being old, the flesh was indifferent. They therefore only took the skin and fleece; the latter made us several gallons of oil. It was after the sun had set before these men came up with us, where we had been halted by an occurrence which I have now to recapitulate, and which, although happily passed without ruinous injury, I cannot recollect but with the utmost trepidation and horror. This is the upsetting and narrow escape of the white pirogue. It happened, unfortunately for us this evening, that Charbonneau was at the helm of this pirogue instead of Drouilliard, who had previously steered her. Charbonneau cannot swim, and is perhaps the most timid waterman in the world. Perhaps it was equally unlucky that Captain Clark and myself were both on shore at that moment, a circumstance which rarely happened, and though we were on the shore opposite to the pirogue, were too far distant to be heard, or to do more than remain spectators of her fate. In this pirogue were embarked our papers, instruments, books, medicine, a great part of our merchandise - and, in short, almost every article indispensably necessary to further the view or ensure the success of the enterprise in which we are now launched to the distance of 2,200 miles.
Suffice it to say that the pirogue was under sail when a sudden squall of wind struck her obliquely and turned her considerably. The steersman, alarmed, instead of putting her before the wind, luffed her up into it. The wind was so violent that it drew the brace of the squaresail out of the hand of the man who was attending it, and instantly upset the pirogue and would have turned her completely topsy-turvy had it not have been for the resistance made by the awning against the water.
In this situation, Captain Clark and myself both fired our guns to attract the attention, if possible, of the crew, and ordered the halyards to be cut and the sail hauled in, but they did not hear us. Such was their confusion and consternation at this moment that they suffered the pirogue to lie on her side for half a minute before they took the sail in. The pirogue then righted but had filled within an inch of the gunwales.
Charbonneau, still crying to his God for mercy, had not yet recollected the rudder, nor could the repeated orders of the bowsman, Cruzat, bring him to his recollection until he threatened to shoot him instantly if he did not take hold of the rudder and do his duty.
The waves by this time were running very high, but the fortitude, resolution, and good conduct of Cruzat saved her. He ordered 2 of the men to throw out the water with some kettles that fortunately were convenient, while himself and two others rowed her ashore, where she arrived scarcely above the water. We now took every article out of her and laid them to drain as well as we could for the evening, bailed out the canoe, and secured her.
There were two other men besides Charbonneau on board who could not swim and who, of course, must also have perished had the pirogue gone to the bottom. While the pirogue lay on her side, finding I could not be heard, I, for a moment, forgot my situation, and involuntarily dropped my gun, threw aside my shot pouch, and was in the act of unbuttoning my coat, before I recollected the folly of the attempt I was about to make, which was to throw myself into the river and endeavor to swim to the pirogue. The pirogue was three hundred yards distant, the waves so high that a person could scarcely live in any situation, the water excessively cold, and the stream rapid. Had I undertaken this project, therefore, there was a hundred to one but what I should have paid the forfeit of my life for the madness of my project, but this - had the pirogue been lost - I should have valued but little.
After having all matters arranged for the evening as well as the nature of circumstances would permit, we thought it a proper occasion to console ourselves and cheer the spirits of our men, and accordingly took a drink of grog, and gave each man a gill of spirits.
Reprinted by permission of the American Studies Programs at the University of Virginia.
The complete text can also be downloaded for printing from their website.